Afghan tribal leaders not aiding searches, U.S. says

Pashtun uncooperative in hunt for Taliban

January 17, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Pashtun tribal leaders in eastern Afghanistan have largely refused to cooperate with U.S. special operations forces in their hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, weapons caches and intelligence that could prevent future terrorist attacks, military officials said yesterday.

The rebuff, which comes as the Pentagon disclosed the discovery near Kabul of two canisters that could contain deadly chemicals, has left U.S. forces with few Afghan allies in one of the most dangerous regions of the country. It is a former Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold that might harbor hundreds of hostile fighters, underground command bunkers and shadowy hideouts ideal for staging guerrilla attacks, officials said.

The Pentagon is trying to offset the lack of assistance on the ground by focusing more attention on the region from the sky, using its vast array of surveillance sensors.

"It's a bad neighborhood, and we haven't been there before," said a military official who closely tracks the movements of special operations forces. "We're not alarmed yet. But we are entering a much more dangerous phase."

The importance of getting accurate intelligence on hidden weapons was highlighted yesterday by the military's disclosure that two metal canisters possibly containing deadly chemical or nuclear material had been unearthed near Kabul.

The military has been looking for evidence that al-Qaida developed radiological, chemical or biological weapons, and has searched 45 of 50 suspected sites in vain. But last week, a private British company turned up the two thermos-sized canisters while clearing mines.

The canisters had the skull-and-crossbones symbol on them as well as warnings in Russian that referred to nuclear material. While intelligence officials believe that the canisters might be a hoax, the canisters will be sent to the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground for analysis.

Even as military officials expressed concern about the lack of cooperation in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed coalition had a potential intelligence boon fall into its lap this week in Kandahar, in the south.

A major drug lord in the Kandahar area who purportedly contributed large amounts of money to Taliban causes surrendered to U.S. Marines for questioning Tuesday, military officials said.

"Our military intelligence people were jumping with joy at the opportunity to talk to him," said 1st Lt. James Jarvis, a Marine Corps spokesman at the U.S. military base at the Kandahar International Airport.

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